On a cold weekday morning, two of the three young men who run the Bamboo Bike Studio (bamboobikestudio.com) leave the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., and drive a battered Toyota to New Jersey.
Bicycle makers Sean Murray, 27, and Justin Aguinaldo, 26, are embarking on one of their periodic bamboo harvests in the small sedan that belongs to the third member of the studio, Marty Odlin, who can’t make the trip. Odlin has a day job managing the sustainable engineering laboratory at Columbia University in Manhattan.
Aguinaldo and Murray carry just two tools: a caliper, to measure the thickness of the bamboo stalks, and a small Japanese pull saw. They got a tip about bamboo growing wild on the grounds of a nursery in New Brunswick, N.J., so they drive there and ask an employee if they can cut some down. They’re told to help themselves.
Aguinaldo, a short, earnest cyclist who grew up in Fort Bragg, Calif., uses the caliper to tap the bamboo before it’s cut. He gets a sense of the plant’s density from the sound.
“If the bamboo’s too watery, it’s not as dense and not as strong,” he explains. “It’s harder to find the stuff that’s denser, that’s better for bikes that are ridden harder.” Aguinaldo knows about riding hard. He and his two compatriots have logged thousands of miles on their bamboo bikes, mostly on New York City’s potholed thoroughfares.
Murray, a former schoolteacher who declares on his outgoing voicemail greeting that he’s living the dream of making bikes with his friends, has taken to trolling online gardening forums for leads on homeowners who are grappling with a bamboo invasion.
“One story I’ve heard a lot is, ‘I got bamboo a few years back as a decorative plant and I still like the bamboo, but it’s started to crawl into my neighbors’ yards,’” he says while cutting down
a 2-inch-thick stalk with his pull saw. “There’s a kind of urgency brought on by the protests of the neighbors, you know.”
The two bike builders harvest a species of bamboo known as Phyllostachys angusta that is common in the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. After a couple of hours cutting 3- and 5-foot lengths, they schlep the freshly cut green bamboo stalks in long canvas bags back to the car and fill up the trunk with the fruits of their harvest.
Aguinaldo and Murray return to Red Hook, a mostly low-rise neighborhood near Brooklyn’s industrial waterfront, and carry the bamboo stalks into an old brick building with high ceilings. Everything in the long, narrow room that serves as the bike-building studio is homemade, including the head-high aluminum frame-holding jigs and the oven used to dry out the bamboo.
For the drying process, they poke thin metal rods through the nodes inside the bamboo so it will dry out evenly when baked. A propane torch is used to cook and harden the skin of the bamboo, which turns from green to a beautiful tan. Then it’s put into the oven for several hours at a low temperature.
Anywhere from two to six people make bikes during the weekend workshops run by Murray, Aguinaldo, and Odlin. It takes two long days and costs $932 to build your own bamboo bike. Bamboo, construction materials, and all bicycle components, such as wheels, handlebars, brakes, etc., are included in the cost. You can build just the frame for $632.
DIYers have come from as far away as California and the U.K. to make bamboo bikes in the Brooklyn studio. On a windy afternoon last November, Aguinaldo and Murray returned from a harvest and were surprised by a visit from Alexis Mills, a 29-year-old bicycle messenger who lives in Ottawa, Ontario.
He made a bamboo bike last October, as did his mother, Christina Mills, a 61-year-old doctor in Waterloo, Ontario, who readily admits being one of those “tread lightly on the Earth” types.
“I just love the whole concept of making your own transportation,” says Christina, who doesn’t own a car but manages to get around pretty well in Waterloo on her four bicycles.
The first day of bike building is devoted to making the frame by connecting the bamboo with epoxy-soaked carbon fiber that looks like thin black ribbon. The bamboo-bike makers refer to this as “weaving the lug.” After the epoxy hardens, the joints are hand-filed to smooth them out. At first glance, the finished joints look like they’ve been wrapped in black electrical tape. On the second day the bike components are attached to the frame, also with epoxy.
Early last December, two people in their 40s, both self-described tinkerers, made bikes in the Red Hook studio. Sari Harris, an information architect who designs interfaces for mobile phone apps, and David Anderson, a lighting technician who works on television and movie productions, were filing away when I dropped by.
Harris wanted a new bike because hers was more than 20 years old. She admits that, going into the bike-building sessions, her mechanical skills were limited to changing a tire.
“Part of me is, ‘Wow, I can make the frame,’ and because I’ll put all the components on, I’ll learn a lot about the mechanics of how a bike works and maybe learn how to tune up my own bike,” Harris says.
Anderson, who rides his bike all over New York City because his work takes him to a new set week after week, marveled at the bamboo he saw growing in Laos on one of his vacations there. The thing he likes about the Bamboo Bike Studio is that, “These guys are not a bike factory here. They’re producing a way of making bikes, rather than producing bikes.” The studio has no immediate plans to make and sell bikes, though Odlin does not rule it out at some point in the future.
Odlin, who is 28 and an accomplished skier, estimates that between the test bikes he and his partners have built and those made by DIYers who come for the weekend workshop, about 180 bikes have been constructed since the Bamboo Bike Studio began in January 2009.
Each weekday Odlin pedals his bamboo bike 12 miles over the Brooklyn Bridge and along the Hudson River Park bike path to Columbia University on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He has been plagued by something that all people who ride bamboo bikes have come to endure — a constant barrage of questions about that bike.
“I ride with headphones even though I don’t listen to music while I’m riding, so I can ignore people when they try to talk to me about my bike.
If I talked to everybody who asked me about my bike, I’d never get to work,” Odlin explains.
Ditto for Murray and Aguinaldo. Aguinaldo uses his bike for his business, the Mess Kollective, a bike messenger collective that has no office and is run entirely on iPhones.
Murray is soon relocating to the Bay Area, where he’ll be setting up a San Francisco-based Bamboo Bike Studio, with weekend workshops already scheduled into the new year. The three founders also “think globally,” with a portion of all class fees going toward efforts to seed the first bamboo bike factory in Ghana.
This past summer the Bamboo Bike Studio started selling kits for DIYers who want to build a bike frame at home. The kits include a jig, some tools, epoxy, carbon, and a limited number of metal parts, such as the special dropouts for the rear wheels. They cost less than $500 — bamboo costs extra, although the studio plans to crowdsource a harvest map for those who want to find local bamboo.
There are at least three detailed how-tos for making a bamboo bicycle on instructables.com. The safety of DIY bamboo bikes has been questioned by Calfee Design’s Craig Calfee (calfeedesign.com), a high-end bike maker in La Selva Beach, Calif., and a pioneer in using bamboo for bicycles.
Calfee, who developed the technique of wrapping epoxy-soaked fiber around bamboo junctions in 1995, told me that building a bamboo bike using “the wrong techniques” could result in serious injury. But he says he assumes the bikes made by Odlin, Murray, and Aguinaldo in Brooklyn are structurally sound.
“I’m more concerned with the average DIYer,” says Calfee. “It’s possible to build a bamboo bike that rides just fine soon after it’s completed. But after the bamboo ages or the resin shrinks, the bamboo can separate from the wrappings, causing very unexpected results.”
Bamboo bicycles may seem like the ultimate mode of environment-friendly transportation, but if you buy one as opposed to making one yourself, they can cost a whole lot of green.
Calfee Design’s bamboo bike frames, which have joints made from epoxy-soaked hemp, sell for $2,695 and $3,195; but he also started a company called Bamboosero, which imports bamboo bike frames made in Africa and sells them starting at around $700. Models include mountain, cargo, city, and road bikes.
In Portland, Ore., Renovo Hardwood Bicycles (renovobikes.com) sells laminated bamboo bike frames starting at $1,495–$2,650, plus extra for full builds. There are two bamboo bike makers in Fort Collins, Colo. Panda Bicycles (pandabicycles.com) makes bikes with bamboo “tubing” connected using a proprietary steel-joint design. The company offers three models ranging from $1,600–$2,150 for frame only, and $2,100–$3,250 for full builds.
Boo Bicycles (boobicycles.com), also in Fort Collins, was started in 2009 by Nick Frey, a 23-year-old pro cyclist and mechanical engineer. His bamboo bikes, which boast carbon fiber joints, are handcrafted by James Wolf, an American furniture maker who lives in Vietnam. Boo sells five models, with frames ranging from $2,625–$2,985, plus customs.
Organic Bikes (organicbikes.com), which is owned by the Wisconsin retailer Wheel and Sprocket, sells a bamboo bicycle called the Dylan for as little as $1,000. It’s made from compressed bamboo dowels connected by recycled aluminum lugs.
A Danish bike maker, Biomega (biomega.dk), also uses aluminum lugs on its bamboo bike, which was developed by award-winning industrial designer Ross Lovegrove with the expertise of Brazilian bamboo specialist Flavio Deslandes.
With all these companies jumping on the bamboo bandwagon, the guys in Brooklyn are concerned that bamboo bikes might become a fad that eventually dies out.
“We feel like we’re building something with more enduring value than that,” says Odlin. “Everyone who leaves the studio says, ‘Wow, my bike is my favorite object now.’ They have such a connection to this thing that came together under their own hands. They may not come here to have that connection to their bicycle, but that’s what they leave with. Everyone leaves with that.”